So last post I set up where I think we should see Spinny and Leibby as coming from: they want to take the concepts
which we use in understanding the world, and actually express them rather than leaving them as fuzzy indefinable somethings. In this post I want to explore how this apparently innocuous endeavour leads to hilarious results.
For example, they try to put into words the idea of ’cause’, and come up with ‘when one thing happens, and as a result, another thing then has to happen’. But why does it have to?
The most readily available answer is ‘because it’s logically necessary’ – i.e., causation is an intelligible relationship, the cause logically implies the effect the same way that premises logically imply a conclusion. This of course blurs together causation and implication, but what can we say about causation if we keep them separate? Hume tried to do just that, and the result was very underwhelming.
And they also try to put into words the idea of ‘substance’, and come up with ‘something that can be understood on its own terms without requiring the thought of anything else’.
To elaborate on where this comes from, consider how substances differs from numbers, properties, or relations: if we say that hungriness exists, we have directly implied that something else exists, the thing which is hungry; if we say that three-ness exists, we imply the further existence of three things; if we say that friendship, we imply at least two further beings who are friends. So the difference seems to be that substance implies nothing beyond itself – it can be understood ‘on its own’.
But then they put these two definitions together and something very unfortunate happens, namely that it swiftly follows that substances cannot interact – these two concepts, so defined, cannot give a world of multiple interacting substances, because whatever is part of a causal relationship can only be fully understood in terms of the other term in that relationship, i.e. not through itself, hence isn’t a substance.
Another puzzling conclusion is that substances can’t be composed of distinct parts – because either the parts are themselves ‘smaller’ substances, in which case they must interact (which has just turned out to be impossible), or they are not, in which case it seems as though the substance ceases to be a substance as soon as you divide it (even mentally) into its parts, which would seem to suggest that it somehow pops out of existence. Which is odd.
There are then two ways to take this: one is to postulate a plurality of substances which do not interact with each other (the ‘monads’ of Leibniz) and with some of which the individual human mind can be identified, and the other is to say that ‘substance’ on this understanding can only apply to the total system, i.e. the entire universe, which is what Spinoza does.
I would argue, for what it’s worth, that if we go this far, we should prefer Spinoza’s system to Leibniz’s, for the following two reasons. Firstly, it preserves our vital feeling of interaction with and connectedness to the rest of the world. That Leibniz has to treat all interaction as essentially an illusion is, I think, a major failing.
The second reason is Leibniz’s attempt to explain this illusion (and avoid the conclusion that I am the only thing which exists) – namely, his appeal to God, and to ‘pre-established harmony’ (when I punch you, I don’t cause you pain, but God has arranged the world in such a way that you feel pain, caused by your own inner nature, at exactly that point).
Now, as any fule kno, God probably doesn’t exist, and so a theory on which God is absolutely vital is weakened. Spinoza’s theory, on the other hand, is essentially atheistic – although he refers to the universe as a whole as ‘God’, and considered it worthy of worship, he explicitly denied the existence of a cosmic person who could freely decide, know, evaluate, etc. That to me counts as atheism.
The main potential objection to Spinoza is probably on the issue of parts and divisibility – he has to say that the universe is not divided into parts, and is in fact indivisible. This is an interesting topic, but I won’t go into it much here, except to sketch how Spinoza deals with it.
Consider my mind: it imagines, it perceives, it desires, it reasons. These different things are in a sense distinct – desiring and imagining, for example, are not the same. But they are not ‘parts’ of my mind, arguably. When I desire something, the whole mind is expressed through that desiring; when I imagine, my whole mind is expressed through that imagining. Similarly, Spinoza says, each finite thing in the world is an expression of the world, but not a ‘part’ of it.
So to recap: in trying to put into words the concepts by which we articulate our view of the world, they turned out to not work like we thought they did. Although Leibniz and Spinoza draw very different conclusions, Spinoza’s seems to me markedly superior because it doesn’t rely on theism and because it preserves interaction between things. But what does any of this mean? If we’re not Spinoza, and didn’t embark with him on his dubious project, what does its eventual outcome teach us?
Find out tomorrow, on the Spinoza and Leibniz show!